Solicitors counter conveyancing threat

Surrey solicitors are planning to set up a property centre to directly compete against estate agent Hambro Countrywide's new in-house convey- ancing service.

And, in a separate development which will increase the pressure on solicitors to respond to growing competition, the Halifax Building Society is poised to unveil a new title insurance service which would cut conveyancers out of remortgages.

The Surrey solicitors have been spurred into action by Hambros' decision to open up its first in-house conveyancing service in Woking in the spring.

They will meet at a conference in Richmond next month, to be attended by Law Society president Tony Girling, to discuss the setting up of a property centre, and are planning to ask the Law Society to fund a pilot centre based on the successful Scottish model.

The solicitors will discuss how they can operate a property centre within the existing practice rules.

But there is also mounting pressure for Practice Rule 6 to be scrapped. The rule prohibits solicitors in the same property centre from acting for both sides in a transaction and restricts them from offering financial services to convey- ancing clients.

This Thursday, the Law Society council will meet in private to discuss the issue. It is expected to agree to a consultation paper on changing the regulations.

Property and commercial services committee chair Richard Hegarty said that rule changes making it easier for solicitors' property centres to be set up could be introduced by June.

Solicitor Michael Garson, who is organising the Richmond conference, said that the Hambros' threat meant urgent action was needed.

Garson, whose firm, Phillip Hodges & Co, is one of around 200 firms which have successfully operated estate agencies for a decade, said the conference would explain how to run a property centre under existing regulations and the difficulties involved in establishing one. “It is a state of mind, it is an attitude and it is a hell of a investment. It can only be done as part of a syndicate,” said Garson.

It is estimated that Hambros' entry into the conveyancing market could see high street practitioners losing up to 100,000 transactions a year.

Pressure for the Law Society to act on conveyancing is likely to increase with the Halifax's anticipated launch of a remortgaging package which would cut solicitors out of remortgaging deals. It is believed the building society will unveil a pilot project in Kent next month which will reduce the time taken for remortgages to be processed from several weeks to around five days.

Clients using 15 Halifax branches will be offered title insurance costing £200 as cover against an adverse local authority search entry as an alternative to going to a solicitor to determine title.